Where is Mind in Nature

Jon LieffAll Searching for the Mind posts describe intelligent behavior in nature that is difficult to explain using theories that only allow for random interactions between molecules—that is, without mind. Intelligent behavior in nature can be observed in, at least, 6 orders of magnitude from the size of a human being down to the size of cells, and an unknown number of orders of magnitude larger if we include interactions with other people and society (the entire earth would be 7 more orders of magnitude). Many different posts demonstrate recent scientific findings that implicate mind interacting with matter in the human brain, in animals, plants and cells—both microbes and human cells. Viruses, which are basically only a strand of DNA or RNA, also demonstrate complex intelligent behavior. Critical questions include where is mind in nature and what form could it take?

Most of the data for posts were discovered in the months before they were written. The vast complexity of molecular and cellular behavior is just now being uncovered. As a result, generation old dogmas, which currently dominate science, are rapidly being undermined and a new paradigm is needed. The notion that random molecular movement and “emergence” from this can explain subjective experience is a bankrupt theory. The word “emergence” is used when the mechanism is not understood.

This post will break with the website format of only referring to scientific data. It will first summarize important discoveries that infer mind interacts with matter and then offer a speculation about a possible mechanism.  

Salient Recent Research   

The Human Brain

Study of the human brain reveals processes that cannot be easily explained without the interaction of brain and mind.

Neuroplasticity: When a thought or learning occurs, it triggers wide-ranging changes in large brain circuits. Posts have discussed a wide range of different mechanisms that occur in hundreds of different parts of these circuits at the same time. (See post for details)

A very brief list includes:

Any one of these might be possible to explain on purely mechanistic grounds. But, having all of these alter in sync triggered by a subjective experience is impossible to explain without a unifying factor such as mind. Without some central direction, it is difficult to imagine all of this occurring at once.

img_scienceHidden Talents: Using virtual reality gear, researchers are able to stimulate out of body experiences in ordinary people, showing a separation of mind and body. Also, psychedelics give counterintuitive results of increased mental activity with great decrease in brain activity, opening question of “doors of perception” into mind. Many triggers can stimulate very unusual spiritual experiences. Brain injuries can trigger very unusual mental capacities that appear to be repressed by brain regions.

Brain scanThere is no Center in the Brain: Intensive study for a generation by a half a million neuroscientists worldwide has found no center in the brain for subjective experience. Recent studies show that the brain is much less modular than previously thought (modularity would go along with a computer model of the brain.) Most of the neurons are connected to multiple sensory inputs. Also, the hubs in the brain circuits are noted to have large amounts of local connections, but all also have massive long-range connections. This goes against a modular theory. Mind must interact with many different regions at once. This is also better explained by interaction with mind.

Perceptions: It is very difficult to determine what causes perceptions. Our senses are limited to narrow bands of what exists (for example the narrow band of vision, hearing, and touch among the possible frequencies). But, the perception is only somewhat determined by the sensory input. In fact, it is determined in larger amount by the expectations, memories, desires and needs. Also, somehow, perceptions from social experiences are able to influence specific gene networks in immune cells.

Animal Brains

beeAnimals are much more aware than scientists have realized, even very small animals with tiny brains. 

Animal research is demonstrating advanced cognition and social behavior in very small brains. For example, bees exhibit completely different structures related to advanced individual abilities of symbolic language, abstract concepts, advanced learning, mathematical abilities and kaleidoscopic visual memory.

Birds have demonstrated advanced verbal learning and syntax. Lizards demonstrate high intelligence and advanced social behavior. Empathy and mourning are seen through much of the animal kingdoms.

It is very difficult to explain the behavior of individual bees, ants, lizards and birds, as well as many other animals, without considering that they also share interaction with mind. 

Plant Intelligence

plants 1Plants demonstrate surprising intelligence.

Research shows dramatic abilities of decision-making, complex communication including communication at great distance through fungal wires, and for self-defense. A plant is able to plan ahead to the time of the morning dew, to make a toxic chemical that will kill mildew at that moment. Any sooner or later they could kill themselves with the toxin.

Plants, in their fight with microbes, create new complex proteins in a constant back and forth battle. They also use RNAs in this battle.

Plants are able to determine exactly how much sugar they have until dawn and apportion the usage by mathematically dividing the amount into the time remaining. In experiments where sugar is added, they recalculate the amount and increase the hourly amount that will last till the next light. They also exhibit short term and long-term memory.

Plants are able to engineer their surroundings for their advantage.

In order to get nitrogen, plants have a very complex back and forth communication with microbes to invite them into the plant to build a nitrogen factory. This involves many steps and signals, any one of which if not answered correctly would stop the process. The plant then builds a factory around them.

Microbe Intelligence

Helicobacter pylori bacteriumMicrobes exhibit many “brainlike” capacities without a brain. They show decision-making from multiple inputs, group behavior, and advanced communication. Microbes can self-edit/mutate their genes to make special proteins to combat viruses, other microbes, and plants. These are complex large proteins that depend upon their exact shape. With the most advanced supercomputers, humans cannot calculate the folding of an average sized protein, from the codes. Yet microbes appear to know.

Microbes demonstrate innovations to fight autophagy in cells. One microbe, leprosy, manipulates genes turning nerve cells into stem cells and then into muscle cells;

Amoebae fruting bodyAmoeba are able to live as individual cells, then when needed to travel for food, they form what appears to be a multicellular creature made of a stalk and flowering body. The flowering body flies away in the wind or on animals’ feet, whereas the stalk sacrifices itself and stays behind. Recent studies show that family members are more likely to sacrifice for others and enter the stalk.

alg_mitochondriaMitochondria are previously independent microbes, who relinquished some of the freedom to live inside of our cells. In exchange for the protection of a large cell, they produce energy. They stay in constant and instantaneous contact with the functioning of the neuron. When thought occurs and dendrites and axons are being built and remodeled, the mitochondria multiply and travel to these spots to give more chemical energy for the process. Later, they will move elsewhere where necessary.

Virus Intelligence

phageEven more remarkable are viruses, also, self-editing/mutating their DNA to form complex proteins in battle with many different foes.  Viruses demonstrate complex behavior, with positive and negative relations with bacteria and humans.

One example (out of thousands) traces the intelligent behavior of the herpes virus in humans.  See post Virus Intelligence.

Herpes virus uses five distinct receptors to fuse with the skin cell’s membrane, allowing DNA to enter the cell. There it foils the complex nuclear pore mechanisms and enters the nucleus. With a more complex process it forms a circle of DNA and uses the cells machinery to reproduce. This new virus now leaves the skin cells and enters a neuron, where it hijacks the complex transport motors; it takes over the motor, accelerating it and directing it the long way up the axon to the nucleus where again it fools a different complex nuclear pore mechanism. In the neuron’s nucleus it changes its behavior and produces molecules that stop further activity to not kill the neuron. It can remain there for many years. Later, it is reactivated and leaves the nucleus, again travelling back on the microtubule machinery along the long axon. It, then, leaves the neuron and enters skin cells where it reproduces.

Cellular Intelligence

Neurons, immune cells, and cancer cells, which are vastly more complex than microbes, demonstrate extremely advanced communication and group activity.

Human cells use cellular self-editing in multiple different ways. They edit their own DNA for errors. They edit their own DNA in very complex ways to make antibodies and T cell receptors.  They edit messenger RNA in a very complex process called alternative splicing, where what was previously considered one gene makes not one protein but up to 500.

256px-DNA_RepairT cells demonstrate many intelligent functions. They mature by building complex receptors that are then able to send and receive large numbers of cytokine wireless signals. They travel through the body searching for cancer, defective cells, and microbe infested cells. But, when in the cerebrospinal fluid they control the other immune cells, and send wireless signals to brain cells, which are necessary for normal cognitive function. When there is an inflammation, in the CSF, the stimulate action from the immune cells and they signal the brain to decrease cognition with the “sick feeling”

Jumping genes, transposons and retro transposons, demonstrate complex behavior, which need to be counteracted with a unique immune system inside the cell’s nucleus. Individual cells have developed different versions of the nuclear immune system, called CRISPR, to fight the massive effects of jumping genes.

Also, individual cells in different regions of the brain develop their own unique intrinsic immune systems for different bacteria and viruses with extensive innovation.

Current Unproven Theories

At this moment in the development of science, there is no way to prove any of the current theories of mind. They are all speculation.

The most popular theory of neuronal connections has many problems, some listed in my recent post, The Limits of Current Neuroscience. Electrical connection theories are complicated by chemical synapses, brain waves, astrocyte networks, cytokine communication with immune cells, extracellular space actions, as well as the unique behavior of individual neurons and the many different kinds of neurons.

kinesin12Quantum and information theories are fascinating, but many years of research remain and don’t necessarily explain subjective mind either. With non-locality, discontinuous behavior, simultaneous wave and particle nature, the physicist David Bohm said the structure of the universe is “much more reminiscent of how the organs constituting living beings are related, than it is of how parts of a machine interact.” (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p272).

The Penrose and Hammeroff microtubules quantum theory would apply to all cells.  Other quantum theories would apply to all inanimate objects as well.

Information theory is still in early stages of any feasible explanation how it could relate to subjective experience. Integrated Information Theory attempts to calculate consciousness but does not yet explain subjective experience.

All molecular theories currently have no basis to explain subjective experience.

Speculation: A Layer of Mind Beneath Physics

For thousands of years philosophers have argued many positions about the nature of mind, all with advantages and disadvantages. None are any closer to being proven scientifically. There are now a hundred different “isms” and many different synonyms for each.

The two most extreme positions are that everything is matter, materialism, and that everything is mind, idealism.

The first extreme position is basically that of modern science. There are many reasons why the view is limited. It considers mind as an epiphenomena—an emergent property of matter. Using the word “emergence” means that the mechanism is not understood.

The other extreme is that everything is mind or Spirit, some form of energy and matter coalesces from it. There are, also, many problems in explaining science with this position.

Perhaps, a more practical position is in between. The middle ground posits that energy, mind, and matter all exist in a continuum as parts of basic nature. One word for this is panpsychism. This position has some difficulties, also, but is closer to our commonsense experience in life. There are many good books on this theory. Some of the views expressed here are further described in Panpsychism In the West by David Skrbina; Unsnarling the World-Knot by David Ray Griffin; Panpsychism: The Philosophy of the Sensuous Cosmos by Ells; and Mind, Memory, Time by Carl Gunther. 

There are many famous scientists, philosophers, and theologians who have expressed versions of this middle ground. An example is that of Thomas Edison, the great inventor, who wrote:

 “I cannot avoid the conclusion that all matter is composed of intelligent atoms and that life and mind are merely synonyms for the aggregation of atomic intelligence.” 

Commonsense View

1) The only access we have to the external world is our perception and thoughts about it. This occurs because our minds exist.

2) Perception is greatly limited by the small bandwidth of each sense—narrow bands of light, sound, touch and smell). It is also influenced by expectation and memories of previous events. There are many more neurons from the cortex interacting downward with the incoming sensory neurons, than the total number of sensory neurons providing data from the outside. Perception is affected by needs and desires. It is biased by situations. Details are missed or excluded. There are illusions, medical conditions, and errors. The multisensory brain chooses one sense over another—sight over sound.

3) Science is completely based on minds with perceptions. The only way science knows anything about the external world is by accepting that there are other minds, studying our perceptions, and seeing if a group of minds agree with the findings. Mathematical concepts are added to explain and predict these observations. All of mathematics is a subset of mind.  (The notion that someone can refute the existence of mind in general by using their own mind is absurd.)

4) Bodies are observed as a perception – both our body and others’ bodies. We agree together that we are connected to each of our bodies.  

FEATURE MAN iStock_000013969262XSmall5) Some form of mind exists in animals, cells, viruses and perhaps molecules. Mind can interact instantly in at least six orders of magnitude at the same second: perception of a social interaction causes neuroplastic changes in multiple cells, alterations in multiple neuronal networks and stress circuits, and stimulation of complex genetic networks deep inside immune cells. Mind, therefore, must interact with molecular mechanisms at all of these levels at the same time.

6) Mental functions exist in a hierarchy from virus and cells to animals and humans. Among animals there are many unique intelligences, despite the human claim to be the only superior mind.

7) Small simple mind entities that interact at molecular levels could combine into larger minds that interact with brains and society. These experiential simple mind entities must exist beneath and around all molecules and then coalesce into those large enough to interact with cells and brains. 

To answer the question where is mind in nature, one possible answer is a layer of experiential subjective entities of proto-mind beneath physics. 

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  • Rob Cristoph

    It is an exciting moment in history, perhaps the most exciting, approaching knowing what we are and where we are. When we consider what we can only say we know, that an atom packs the power it needs for billions of years, that it can be compressed to a tiny tiny fraction of its normal size because it is largely empty space… that entanglement happens, that the light harvesting molecule uses quantum physics to operate at or near 100% efficiency… and all the other things you have mentioned built on that basic block, we can only deduce that we live in an amazing place, a place that cares for itself, or is cared for by an intelligence we do not comprehend or even locate. We are not at the moment to make conclusions, but perhaps at the moment to realign our views. My guess, and this for fun, is to imagine that the universe is seeded with life based on the same core cellular technology, but perhaps with differences in the programming, in the “music” (DNA) that makes life what it is on each planet. For now, we can only collect more data until a picture emerges… but it is a fascinating journey that so very few people are even aware.

  • Dr. Jen

    Mind is an electromagnet field surrounding, imbuing and informing the physical brain.

  • Tam Hunt

    Jon, great post. You might enjoy my recent critical review of Tononi’s book and of IIT more generally: http://www.independent.com/news/2013/nov/21/hi-phi/

    • Tam,

      Thanks for your article and kind words. I greatly enjoyed reading your article and would appreciate any future articles and insights.

      Jon Lieff

      • Tam Hunt

        Thanks Jon. I have a ten-part series of columns on these issues here, starting with “Absent-minded Science”: http://www.independent.com/news/eco-ego-eros/?page=4. I also have a longer paper addressing the more technical issues and I can email it to you if you contact me at tam dot hunt at gmail.

        • Thanks for the information on the series. I thought we have been communicating through tam.hunt@gmail. If possible I would like to see your longer article. My better email to sent it to me is jonlieff@aol.com. because I am more used to it. the gmail is mainly linked to the website. look forward to reading it.

          Thanks again for your great work.

          Jon Lieff

  • Jeff Graubart

    Excellent summary of your work. I missed it when it first came out.

    Currently, my scientific mind is falsifying ideas in panpsychic realism as fast as I come up with them. It is maddening to see the obvious truth in what you write here, and elsewhere in Searching for Mind, and not be able to grab the scientific key to unlock these truths. Still, I’m aiming for a logically consistent presentation for Tucson and hoping for a miracle between now and then.

    Thanks again for your great work in this area,

  • Tam Hunt

    PS. Jon, I’d warn against using the term “proto-mind” because it seems to me that this risks another type of emergence problem. How do “proto-minds” become real minds? And what is proto-mind? Why not frame the issue as just simpler minds compounding and complexifying into larger minds? Where there is matter, there is mind, and as matter complexifies so mind complexifies. Minds become highly complex with the advent of life b/c life is nothing more than the complexification of matter, allowing for far more interesting and diverse behavior than we witness in inanimate matter. But as with mind, there’s no line between life and non-life. It’s just a continuum.

  • Jen

    we are energy let me tell you a little story; I had been in a MRI for approximately 90 minutes a short time after a friend of mine and I had gone shopping and we went thru a pots and pans isle and I had warned my friend about mid isle and stopped while turning around to tell my friend to watch out I am full of electricity and low and behold a pot or pan literally sprang forth. My friend was scared shitless lol. Thanks for reading happy holidays!


    I once took a photo of a reflection of tall trees as they appeared to bee slightly moving in shallow water , the word “Neuroplasticity” instantly came to my Mind . The photo triggered so many other thoughts & memories , I honestly believed I had invented the word Neuroplasticity , I had never heard the word before and was very surprised it already existed . Excellent Writing ~ Thankyou.

  • John Torday

    Jon, opening people’s minds up to the panpsychic perspective is of great value to making us more human(e). Might I add that it is important to understand that we are not merely in this world, we are of it, literally. Life started as the ‘spark’ of calcium flux, entrained by primitive cells, driven by chemiosmosis, and maintained by homeostasis, in defiance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It was that construct, evolving in an ever-changing external environment that initiated life. All that was made possible by the endomembrane system of the cell, compartmentalizing the external factors that would otherwise have destroyed life- gravity, oxygen, nitrogen, minerals. The calcium spark is the same in a paramecium and in a neuron, so intelligence or mind is universal among all living things, copping the hierarchical information copped from the Big Bang.

    There seems to be a popular misconception that evolution is a mechanism
    for biologic ‘progress’. And that humans are the apotheosis of that
    progression. That’s akin to our former misconception that we are the center of the Solar System, which was our ‘universe’ at the time. It seemed that we were why the heavenly bodies existed, swirling around us, as night followed day. But science taught us that the sun was the center of the Solar System, forcing us to recalibrate, leading to the Age of
    Enlightenment. That realization extricated us from the power of the
    soothsayers and astrologers, who conveyed the notion of fate over free
    will, moving us along an informed trajectory of self-awareness and
    autonomy. Like that process of liberation, understanding what evolution
    as all of biology actually does is of equal if not greater importance.
    Seen from its cellular origins, calcium flux was the ‘spark’ of life,
    driven by negentropy, sustained by chemiosmosis and homeostasis. Think
    of it like Ouroboros, the Greek myth of the snake catching its own tail,
    or like the family dog….now what? Once that automaton was set in
    motion, defying the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it was
    impelled/compelled to recapitulate that event, giving rise to life. That
    dynamism is reprised every time we go through the life cycle, returning
    to First Principles in the zygote, as we must if we are going to
    sustain, maintain and reinvent ourselves, as we must, since it is a
    given that the environment is ever-changing. Given the primacy of the
    unicellular state, why not consider the possibility that it is what is
    being selected for, and that metazoans are all merely Gould and Lewontin’s ‘Spandrels’? That is to say, we are all epiphenomena of the cell. Talk about consciousness, the ability to contemplate that notion is the epitome of mind as the concretization of the unity of inert and animate life.

  • natasha de montana

    well.. it’s very lonely in here, where have all your “great minds” wondered?? I really enjoyed reading your article. Shame no-ones here to converse ideologue with.. awaiting correspondence with the atoms of my fruitful mind!!!!

  • rd hanson

    i deduced some of your conclusions about intelligent molecules recently and found this website and it was like i met someone who had taken a different path to the same location
    rd hanson aka zombiefood